Barely hours before the deadline, Chevron received word from the US government that it would be allowed to continue operating in Venezuela. The original 6-month waiver from the US oil embargo against the South American nation was due to expire on July 27, and with little time to spare, the Trump administration finally agreed to extend it but only by 3 months.
Chevron, along with US service firms Halliburton, Schlumberger, Baker Hughes and Weatherford International – can now continue to operate legally in Venezuela until October 25. As a reprieve, that isn’t much. A mere waiver extension of 90 days will do little. Not long enough to stabilise the situation, but not short enough for major repercussions.
But at least for now, Chevron will be breathing a sigh of relief. The lone major US oil company still in operation after ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips made a costly flee when Hugo Chávez nationalised the oil industry, Chevron raised some eyebrows as it curried favour with the Chávez government. At stake were crucial shares in key oil fields, including the vast Orinoco Belt and future opportunities in the country with the world’s largest proven reserves that exceed even Saudi Arabia. The vacuum left by ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips was filled by Russia’s Rosneft and China’s CNPC, who receive crude shipments through complicated oil-for-loan deals. But Chevron is still holding on, supported mainly by Halliburton.
The main risk cited by Chevron as it lobbied for the waiver’s extension was that the assets it would be forced to give up would likely fall into the hands of Russian and Chinese firms, which would wipe out institutional American oil influence in the country. These fears appealed to the America First slant of the Trump administration, but only just. The necessity of the waivers was balanced against impatience to bring down the government of Nicolas Maduro. According to inside sources, Trump thought Maduro would cave in immediately following the sanctions; that this did not happen is a badge of embarrassment and the White House is apparently in no mood to capitulate and wants to force regime change soon.
Central to this equation is what the Venezuelan opposition, which the US recognises as the current legitimate government of the country will do. And Juan Guaido, the de facto leader of the National Assembly, has already announced that Chevron’s assets in Venezuela would be protected under his government. In other words, if Guaido became President, then there would be no problem. Russia and China wouldn’t be allowed to steal American oil interests from Chevron. But that is a big if. Guaido and his allies have already tried once to seize control, garnering international support for their cause but were repelled by Maduro and his incumbents. But pressure is still being applied, and the short tenure of the waiver could be seen as a sign that the US believes the Maduro regime will fall very soon.
And if it does, then Guaido would owe the US favours. And the price for US support is steep. Many American oil industry executives still remember the days of Venezuela’s ‘apertura petrolera’ period in the early 1990s, a golden age for US oil interests in Venezuela. In 1999, however the internationally-minded Rafael Caldera was replaced by leftist Hugo Chávez and those policies reversed, essentially kicking all US oil interests out of Venezuela. All, that is, except for shrewd Chevron. The battle waged by Trump’s White House is a war to return Venezuela to a pre-1999 state far more receptive to US influence. The question of which side will prevail is still up in the air, but for now, Chevron doesn’t have to choose a side yet.
Chevron's assets in Venezuela:
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Recent headlines on the oil industry have focused squarely on the upstream side: the amount of crude oil that is being produced and the resulting effect on oil prices, against a backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. But that is just one part of the supply chain. To be sold as final products, crude oil needs to be refined into its constituent fuels, each of which is facing its own crisis because of the overall demand destruction caused by the virus. And once the dust settles, the global refining industry will look very different.
Because even before the pandemic broke out, there was a surplus of refining capacity worldwide. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019, global oil demand was some 99.85 mmb/d. However, this consumption figure includes substitute fuels – ethanol blended into US gasoline and biodiesel in Europe and parts of Asia – as well as chemical additives added on to fuels. While by no means an exact science, extrapolating oil demand to exclude this results in a global oil demand figure of some 95.44 mmb/d. In comparison, global refining capacity was just over 100 mmb/d. This overcapacity is intentional; since most refineries do not run at 100% utilisation all the time and many will shut down for scheduled maintenance periodically, global refining utilisation rates stand at about 85%.
Based on this, even accounting for differences in definitions and calculations, global oil demand and global oil refining supply is relatively evenly matched. However, demand is a fluid beast, while refineries are static. With the Covid-19 pandemic entering into its sixth month, the impact on fuels demand has been dramatic. Estimates suggest that global oil demand fell by as much as 20 mmb/d at its peak. In the early days of the crisis, refiners responded by slashing the production of jet fuel towards gasoline and diesel, as international air travel was one of the first victims of the virus. As national and sub-national lockdowns were introduced, demand destruction extended to transport fuels (gasoline, diesel, fuel oil), petrochemicals (naphtha, LPG) and power generation (gasoil, fuel oil). Just as shutting down an oil rig can take weeks to complete, shutting down an entire oil refinery can take a similar timeframe – while still producing fuels that there is no demand for.
Refineries responded by slashing utilisation rates, and prioritising certain fuel types. In China, state oil refiners moved from running their sites at 90% to 40-50% at the peak of the Chinese outbreak; similar moves were made by key refiners in South Korea and Japan. With the lockdowns easing across most of Asia, refining runs have now increased, stimulating demand for crude oil. In Europe, where the virus hit hard and fast, refinery utilisation rates dropped as low as 10% in some cases, with some countries (Portugal, Italy) halting refining activities altogether. In the USA, now the hardest-hit country in the world, several refineries have been shuttered, with no timeline on if and when production will resume. But with lockdowns easing, and the summer driving season up ahead, refinery production is gradually increasing.
But even if the end of the Covid-19 crisis is near, it still doesn’t change the fundamental issue facing the refining industry – there is still too much capacity. The supply/demand balance shows that most regions are quite even in terms of consumption and refining capacity, with the exception of overcapacity in Europe and the former Soviet Union bloc. The regional balances do hide some interesting stories; Chinese refining capacity exceeds its consumption by over 2 mmb/d, and with the addition of 3 new mega-refineries in 2019, that gap increases even further. The only reason why the balance in Asia looks relatively even is because of oil demand ‘sinks’ such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Pakistan. Even in the US, the wealth of refining capacity on the Gulf Coast makes smaller refineries on the East and West coasts increasingly redundant.
Given this, the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis will be the inevitable hastening of the current trend in the refining industry, the closure of small, simpler refineries in favour of large, complex and more modern refineries. On the chopping block will be many of the sub-50 kb/d refineries in Europe; because why run a loss-making refinery when the product can be imported for cheaper, even accounting for shipping costs from the Middle East or Asia? Smaller US refineries are at risk as well, along with legacy sites in the Middle East and Russia. Based on current trends, Europe alone could lose some 2 mmb/d of refining capacity by 2025. Rising oil prices and improvements in refining margins could ensure the continued survival of some vulnerable refineries, but that will only be a temporary measure. The trend is clear; out with the small, in with the big. Covid-19 will only amplify that. It may be a painful process, but in the grand scheme of things, it is also a necessary one.
Infographic: Global oil consumption and refining capacity (BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019)
|Region||Consumption (mmb/d)*||Refining Capacity (mmb/d)|
*Extrapolated to exclude additives and substitute fuels (ethanol, biodiesel)
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Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on Bloomberg L.P. data
Note: All prices except West Texas Intermediate (Cushing) are spot prices.
The New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) front-month futures contract for West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the most heavily used crude oil price benchmark in North America, saw its largest and swiftest decline ever on April 20, 2020, dropping as low as -$40.32 per barrel (b) during intraday trading before closing at -$37.63/b. Prices have since recovered, and even though the market event proved short-lived, the incident is useful for highlighting the interconnectedness of the wider North American crude oil market.
Changes in the NYMEX WTI price can affect other price markers across North America because of physical market linkages such as pipelines—as with the WTI Midland price—or because a specific price is based on a formula—as with the Maya crude oil price. This interconnectedness led other North American crude oil spot price markers to also fall below zero on April 20, including WTI Midland, Mars, West Texas Sour (WTS), and Bakken Clearbrook. However, the usefulness of the NYMEX WTI to crude oil market participants as a reference price is limited by several factors.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
First, NYMEX WTI is geographically specific because it is physically redeemed (or settled) at storage facilities located in Cushing, Oklahoma, and so it is influenced by events that may not reflect the wider market. The April 20 WTI price decline was driven in part by a local deficit of uncommitted crude oil storage capacity in Cushing. Similarly, while the price of the Bakken Guernsey marker declined to -$38.63/b, the price of Louisiana Light Sweet—a chemically comparable crude oil—decreased to $13.37/b.
Second, NYMEX WTI is chemically specific, meaning to be graded as WTI by NYMEX, a crude oil must fall within the acceptable ranges of 12 different physical characteristics such as density, sulfur content, acidity, and purity. NYMEX WTI can therefore be unsuitable as a price for crude oils with characteristics outside these specific ranges.
Finally, NYMEX WTI is time specific. As a futures contract, the price of a NYMEX WTI contract is the price to deliver 1,000 barrels of crude oil within a specific month in the future (typically at least 10 days). The last day of trading for the May 2020 contract, for instance, was April 21, with physical delivery occurring between May 1 and May 31. Some market participants, however, may prefer more immediate delivery than a NYMEX WTI futures contract provides. Consequently, these market participants will instead turn to shorter-term spot price alternatives.
Taken together, these attributes help to explain the variety of prices used in the North American crude oil market. These markers price most of the crude oils commonly used by U.S. buyers and cover a wide geographic area.
Principal contributor: Jesse Barnett